Mommy Can't Play Right Now — She's Dissociating

Can't do it all? Of course not! Do what you can — and know that is enough.

A woman's arm holding a newborn baby, both caucasian Joanna Schroeder

The other night, between an after-school playground trip and bedtime, my daughter aimed her big green eyes at me and asked, “Mommy, will you play with me?”

She’s little, still in preschool, and incapable of any sort of manipulation. If she sweetly asks me to play with her after a full day at school and an outdoor playdate, it’s a need not a want.

The problem was, I couldn’t play. I was exhausted, overstimulated, and emotionally drained and all I could think about was curling up on the couch to scroll Twitter, which is what I was doing when she asked.


Yes, I — your fourth or fifth favorite parenting writer — couldn’t play with my youngest child because I was zoning out to my phone. I wasn’t even looking at anything important, and that was the point. I didn’t want to remember what I was seeing. I wanted to disappear.

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The emotional toll of disocciation

“I can’t play right now, honey, I’m so sorry,” I told her, my eyelids drooping and fuzzing my vision.

“But why?” she asked, two Schleich unicorns in hand.

Because I’m dissociating,” I said before I even thought about it. One of my teenagers laughed from the kitchen.

I wish I could say that it was one of those “It’s a Wonderful Life” or A Christmas Carol type of moments where I saw myself from the outside, saw my child needing her mom, and woke up to what was most important. I wish I could say that I made the choice to do better, smiled, and accepted one of those unicorns.

But I didn’t. I couldn’t. I needed to lie still. I needed to be alone. It couldn’t wait.


I couldn’t be a good mom just then.

Like every day, I worked from the moment I dropped my children off at school to the moment I left the house to pick them up. Actually, if you count domestic work (which you should), I worked from the moment I awoke at 5:30 a.m. to take the puppy out and start lunches and water bottles until the moment I collapsed on that couch.

I worked on my book and at my editorial job while the kids were at school and then somehow continued to work after I picked my daughter up (three minutes late) from school, hopping on a call with my book agent and coauthor. She sat patiently — remarkably patiently — looking through Grumpy Monkey and singing a little song while I conference-called all the way to the playground. She even tolerated me finishing my call on our walk into the park.

When we arrived, I took my friend’s newborn and held all eight pounds of him close while she ran to get groceries. With that little bundle tucked into my chest, I bounced and rocked while I settled preschooler disputes, comforted injuries and approved snacks. With tiny baby breaths rising on his tiny, sleeping body snuggled against me, I felt a few moments of peace.


When my friend returned, I handed him back and took a conference call with one of my older sons and a doctor about an injury while she watched our preschoolers. Then my daughter and I hit the canyon roads to get another of my children 35 minutes away, over a pass cut from layers of rock and dotted with scrubby plants, hundreds of feet falling below the road on one side. There is no zoning out on this drive. There’s also no silence in a car with a bubbly preschooler and even less with the addition of an annoyed teenager on that 35-minute ride back home.

And that is the story of how I came to be the mom curled up in the corner of the couch, eyes as dull as turnips.

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No trauma, no drama — nothing out of the ordinary

That totally average day, combined with some bigger life stuff that’s going on — developments with the book Christopher Pepper and I are writing, developments with the marriage my husband and I have been trying to rescue and repair, developments with one child’s sports education and another’s college applications and missing FAFSA forms, developments with the permitting process that will allow us to rebuild our home and property after losing part of it in a wildfire years ago — was enough to wipe me out.


This is not an inspirational story, but it’s a true one.

I’d like to state for the record that we’re all using the term “dissociating” too much in casual language. By “we” I mostly mean me and almost everyone on TikTok.

I’d also like to apologize in advance for knowingly using this term incorrectly. The thing is, there isn’t another great term for when someone has to disconnect from everyone and everything in order to be OK.

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This is my brain on dissociation

Like a short-term bear hibernation, my brain prunes the least-important functions first: humor and ingenuity, creativity and cleverness. Second, the drive to do anything even remotely unnecessary like cooking “real” dinner, unpacking the dishwasher or showering. Third, the ability to connect emotionally with anybody. Fourth, the ability to engage meaningfully on any level. There’s a fifth stage, but usually, it involves the type of crying where people worry about you.


My daughter caught me in the third stage. I had been able to feed her boxed macaroni and cheese and sliced strawberries with oat milk, but I could not “talk unicorns” with her, no matter how much I may have wanted to.

I needed that to be alright. I needed her to accept that, and she did.

But could I? Not really.

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Do what you can — and that's enough

So what do we do when we’re exhausted, too exhausted to play?

I think if it happens every once in a while, you just accept it. You offer what you can, something low-key like reading a book together, a snuggle or even simply watching them play something alone, and you hope it is enough.


But for me, it’s not rare. It’s happening once every week, sometimes twice.

My need to disappear in the evening is becoming more frequent along with more frequent demands on my time and energy. I want to let my mind rest and can’t just wait until bedtime. For reasons too boring to explain, my husband caring for the kids during the week is not an option, and neither is childcare.

But it’s my problem to solve, and I am going to solve it.

I apologize if you were hoping for advice or answers. That’s not what this is about.

This is just a story. It’s not inspirational, but it’s true.

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Joanna Schroeder is a writer and media critic whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Esquire, and more. She collects her new essays on Substack